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La Jornada, Mexico

Americans, Whites
and the Elderly

By Miguel Marín Bosch

Translated By Krystal Miller

29 November 2012

Edited by Tom Proctor

Mexico - La Jornada - Original Article (Spanish)

With his re-election, President Barack Obama has ensured that his step into the White House will be seen as a success in the political and social evolution of the United States. Had he been limited to just one mandate, some have interpreted his presidency as a failure, like a historical accident.

What’s more, Barack Obama has completed a cycle that in some ways was started in 1960. Obama’s life (he was born in 1961) coincided with a cycle that started when John F. Kennedy became the first president of his country who was neither Protestant nor Anglo-Saxon. With that, to a large extent, he unhinged this worldly idea from the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP): Obama accomplished the removal of everything white from the WASP.

The 1960s defined a great part of what is today’s United States. It was a turbulent decade that changed the country forever. John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated.

Think of the groups that voted for Obama on Nov. 6: teenagers; women; African-Americans; other minorities, such as Hispanics and Asian-Americans; the poor; and other groups, including the homosexual population. They depend on the aid that the state gives them. Half a century ago, that coalition would have been unimaginable.

I lived in the U.S. the majority of the 1960s. I spent four years on scholarships at Yale University studying for a degree in history and then a doctorate at Columbia. In 1960, Yale still saved many of its characteristics that inspired its founding in 1701 — an institution of outstanding education for white men, Protestants and families who are well-off financially. A lot was changed by the end of this decade.

When I arrived, I was still at a rather outdated institution, if not backward. Almost all the professors were men; the focus on who taught the U.S. history classes reflected much of the distorted vision of this country’s past.

At Yale, the students pursuing degrees were men. It wasn’t until 1969 that the first women were admitted. You could count the number of African-Americans that attended the university by hand. There were about 20 Latin Americans, and almost every one of them were sons of rich parents. There were relatively few Jews; the Catholics were a little more numerous, but not by much. The majority were white and Protestant. However, things started to change. Cracks opened in the world of the WASP. The fundamental change was a result of the African-American fight for a change in human rights within the white majority’s sector. American society was (and in many ways still continues to be) very racist. Change was made through civil disobedience and nonviolence.

The federal government played a basic role and also overcame a few reluctant governors. From Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted some laws that changed the country. He got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act and the law for the right to vote. He also modified laws pertaining to immigration.

In the social script, Johnson fought against poverty and introduced Medicare and Medicaid, the antecedent of Obama’s health reform. He managed to strengthen the role of the federal government. At the same time, however, the Vietnam War divided the country and ended Johnson’s own political career.

The social and political changes started to manifest themselves at the universities. For the first time in decades, the students became politicized. As a result, the institutions of higher education began to adapt to this new reality.

The fight toward civil rights empowered the African-American population, and the African-American studies degree appeared. Feminism emerged as an important social-political movement, and universities began to incorporate courses dealing with topics about women. Following the Cuban Revolution, there was an interest in Spanish studies and Latin American issues; as a result, degrees that adhered to these new interests became possible.

Together with the younger generation, those were the groups that brought Obama to presidency. The Republican Party has remained popular with old white men and will have to reflect a lot if it wants to start winning the presidency again. Every day, the [number of] WASP heirs is getting smaller; it doesn’t seem like we will see much more of them in the future.

The Republicans will have to redefine themselves and leave behind the tea party, which gathers the reactionary features of American society. Mitt Romney had to go along with [them while] continuing toward his party’s nomination and then was forced to distance himself from them in order to search for help in the more moderate areas of the population.

Some time ago, the U.S. became used to seeing African-American faces in Congress, the Supreme Court and the Cabinet. Johnson was the first one to add an African-American male in the Cabinet; in recent years, [the numbers] have grown. Hazel O’Leary, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Eric Holder are just a few African-Americans who have been members of the Cabinet.

Obama’s election in 2008 was the culmination of a process that has gathered steam over the last half-century. Curiously, in 2008, the Democrats had to choose between a woman and an African-American male as the next possible president. No one in 1960 could have envisioned such a conflict.

I remember many of the conversations with Magnus Mörner, one of my professors at Columbia. Studious of the racial mixing happening in Latin America, he analyzed the problem concerning minorities in the United States. Occasionally, we arrived at the conclusion that an African-American male with Hispanic ancestry might arrive at the White House. We were wrong.



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